Alphastream

The Alphastream Gaming Blog

Why Adventures with Flowcharts May Offer No Choices

Tattoo of Death, Choose Your Own Adventure #22. Map by Chooseco

Remember the “choose your own adventure” books? The above flowchart is one of several now included with reprints of these classic books.

I want to talk about those books and their choices. But let’s talk about the larger issue first: flowcharts and what they do or don’t add to adventures. Flowcharts are at times portrayed in D&D design circles as if they are a big boon to adventure design. I think we give flowcharts too much credit.

Update: I was on Ego Check with the ID DM, where we talked about this subject! Read this article and then check out the podcast.

5E’s Strange History with Flowcharts

5E was criticized for not having flowcharts in its early hardback adventures. I recall this coming up during Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, but it came up a lot when the second adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse, came out. Princes is one the most confusing adventures to run – the beginning for many DMs is found in Chapter 6. Yes, six. 

The first adventure to have a flowchart, I think, is the sixth 5E hardback adventure – Storm King’s Thunder. Storm King appears to need it. Take a look (click to see the full thing):

Storm King went through a lot of changes before it was released. From what designers say, a new beginning was added before the choice of three starting locations where giants strike. Later, we have a choice of giant lairs to visit. It’s not actually that complex and it’s not actually about choice (as we will see later), but having this chart is helpful.

The seventh adventure, Tomb of Annihilation, would skip a flowchart. Most adventures since that time, however, have had a flowchart. Many adventures released for the D&D Adventurers League started to have flowcharts – apparently a design mandate.

Then again, the flowchart in both AL and hardback adventures tends to look like this one, from Rime of the Frostmaiden. I’ve chopped off the end to avoid spoilers (click to see it larger).

Yes, that’s a flowchart that is 100% a list of the chapters, in order, with levels and a short description added to it.

The Promise of Flowcharts

Flowcharts promise to help a DM run the adventure better, and that the adventure has choices. Is that true?

Clarity?

I would argue that the charts found in official 5E books aren’t that helpful. They draw lines to the obvious parts, when the confusion lies elsewhere.

Let’s begin where we left off, with Rime of the Frostmaiden. The organization of the book is fairly clear: you start in the Ten Towns, you explore the land around the towns, and then you respond to various events which linearly take you through the rest of the adventure, chapter by chapter. The flowchart you saw above offers little value.

What is actually needed is clarification around how to run various sections and how and when to link the sections together. I don’t want to spoil the adventure, but there is a chapter where you can go into a mountain location or respond to a threat to the towns. The DM then receives almost no useful information either on how to present that choice to the players, or how to adjudicate what happens based on when they respond to the threat. As we reported on the Mastering Dungeons podcast, you have to consult blogs or our podcast to figure out the options.

The flowchart for Rime also lacks the most important information, which is when you advance to the next chapter. It displays levels, but those levels are gained based on a mix of factors spelled out in each chapter. The flowchart leaves that out, so you have to read the actual text to figure it out (and it took us more work than expected to figure it out for our podcast).

Descent into Avernus is similar. In fact, most 5E adventures, including Adventurers League, have flowcharts offering an illusion of clarity. In actuality, the adventure remains confusing to run, because of issues found in the text.

One adventure that actually would have benefitted from a flowchart is Princes of the Apocalypse. Princes functions as a big sandbox, with various leads. The lead you choose to follow directs you to other leads (flowchart branches). A flowchart showing how the various sites connect, with key clues and with the location of the missing Mirabar members? A challenge to design, but it would be very useful! A flowchart simply showing chapters would be no help at all.

Choices?

D&D has long had a problem with choices. It often doesn’t seem to know what a choice is. A lot of the discussion around choice focuses on railroading, or a linear experience. Start at the tavern, get the quest, traverse the woods, explore the tomb, go back and get your reward. The sandbox is held as the opposite: the characters can travel wherever they like, in any order.

Which one offers more choice? It’s a trick question. A linear adventure could have an important choice for the characters regarding what to sacrifice to stop the ritual. It’s linear, but the choice could be awesome and very memorable. A sandbox adventure could see characters wandering from place to place, with no motivation and no choices that matter. Sure, we can go West… but when we don’t know anything about East or West… it is arbitrary and not meaningful.

Those “choose your own adventure” books? A lot of those choices were arbitrary. If you found a chest to open, you quickly learned that whether it contained death or a key to the rest of the adventure was completely arbitrary. There was a flowchart, there were options… but the choices were not meaningful.

Is a Flowchart Branch a Choice?

Flowcharts have the same problem. They seem to suggest a choice, but they may offer none. Take the Storm King flowchart. The DM is instructed to pick the starting town! That first branch of three is meaningless for the players! They won’t know a choice even existed.

The next and only remaining flowchart branch is after Chapter 4, where we go to one giant lair. Based on questions the PCs ask of an oracle, they learn the location of one or more giant lairs. But they are highly unlikely (without DM intervention) to learn details that would allow them to truly weight the pros and cons of where they head next. That’s because it doesn’t matter. Every choice works equally, and the players have almost no information. The DM is probably better off choosing the one they want to run.

To be meaningful, a choice has to engage players. The players and their characters must have useful information, and they must understand that their decision matters. The adventure then has to back that up with consequences for the choice they make.

We saw this with the D&D Next adventures, Murder in Baldur’s Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard. In those, the players learn of three threats at a time. However, they can only stop two of them. It’s relatively clear that they are making choices, and they will see the consequences begin to play out as they make progress on some threats but not others.

I want to pause and say that in some situations, the illusion of meaningful choice is okay. For example, in an Adventurers League multi-table Epic event, it’s fine to have each table of players pick one of three paths, and for the choice to seem really important, but for all choices to be equally important to the outcome. That’s because all tables should have an equal chance to shine. In attacking a castle, the choice of charging the front gate or taking out defensive ballistae can be equally important, but the PCs feel like heroes either way.

Rethinking Flowcharts and Choices

D&D 5E can keep flowcharts in adventures. That’s fine. Just add in useful information and reduce the size of the flowchart from an entire page to maybe half or a quarter. No one will complain about a quick visual aid. Just don’t pretend it solves problems inherent to the adventure!

If D&D wants to offer choices, it can do so by providing moments where the party has truly important decisions to make. These need not be something illustrated on a flowchart. Good choices should engage the players, should come with useful information they can use to make a tough decision, and the decision should have consequences.

Finally, D&D could have more adventures designed in ways that require flowcharts with actual branches. What does that look like?

Flowcharts That Truly Branch

A flowchart should branch when the adventure has multiple ways to resolve one or more scenes in the adventure. As we mentioned, these choices should be tangible – the players should know they are making a choice. Let me add one more layer: sometimes the play can be open. This means that the adventure scene supports a wide range of approaches, and those approaches are funneled by the DM into one of the available branches. We almost never see this kind of play in D&D, which is fascinating (especially since D&D seems to constantly chase this kind of design without ever grasping it).

Let’s consider an adventure for the Night’s Black Agents RPG by Pelgrane Press. Here is the flowchart (spoilers – click it to make it bigger) for the excellent adventure, The Red Connection:

At various points in the adventure, the players have complete freedom with regards to what to do. They know an ally is held by vampires and being flown from one location to another. They could intervene at the airport before the plane takes off. They could get on the plane and strike in the sky. They could intercept at the destination airport or tail them and strike where the hostage is taken. And a lot more!

Similarly, as they gain clues regarding the vampires’ end game, they have a wide latitude in what to do. This can lead to going through several scenes meticulously so as to confirm what is happening, or acting on a hunch and skipping several scenes to go straight to the last two sections.

Think of the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do you find the Arc of the Covenant before the wretched Nazis? If they find it first, we might skip those awesome snake temple scenes and instead have additional scenes where the heroes try to steal the artifact. And, of course, the evil foes may try to take it back!

Gumshoe system adventures, as a whole, are written in a very open style. The flowcharts guide the DM through likely connections between possible scenes. The approach is tangible during play. You as a player sense that your ideas and approaches will have consequences, and that you have a wide range of options available. In these kinds of games, your mind is open to wild ideas. “What if we release sleeping gas in the passenger compartment, and while everyone sleeps we toss the bad guys out the plane, then land like nothing happened?” You can try that. (If you are interested in learning more about designing for open play, see The Best and Worst of Adventure Formats at Winter Fantasy 2020)

The D&D equivalent? “What if instead of going to each elemental evil lair, we get them to come to us? Let’s spread word that we are another Mirabar delegation, loaded with even more loot. When they attack us, we will claim to be able to get them ransom money. They will take us to their lairs!” Imagine encouraging this actively with your adventure design, and having the flowchart to support it! You have to design very differently for such an adventure.

How about you? What are your favorite adventures that provide actual choices, and what are those great choices like? Which adventure has the best and most useful flowchart?

Update: I was on Ego Check with the ID DM, where we talked about this subject! Read this article and then check out the podcast.

6 comments on “Why Adventures with Flowcharts May Offer No Choices

  1. Michael Lee
    August 12, 2021

    Great article, I agree completely!

    I’m surprised you didn’t touch on Dungeons; the literal embodiment of flow charts. At every crossroad or door, there should be some clue as to what lies beyond. For example, the smell of animals down one corridor, guttural voices in argument down another corridor, or a wood door, wet and rotting in its’ frame. Please not, “East hall, West hall or North door.” – I may as well roll a die to decide.

    • David
      August 16, 2021

      Agreed! Too bad this concept isn’t better supported in published adventures (or even covered in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). Too often published adventures lack for such details or bury them where they’re easily missed.

  2. Bob Mungovan
    August 12, 2021

    I was particularly unimpressed with Waterdeep: Dragon Heist’s Flowchart, but it almost makes clear that the villain lairs aren’t really part of the main adventure progression.

  3. 2Die10 Games
    August 13, 2021

    One of the things to bear in mind that these flow charts are merely guides, much like much any aspect of any D&D book. They help with understanding contents and planning, but often readers forget that they are not bound by these at all. Treat these as a dirt round instead of a set railroad tracks.

  4. Brandoff
    August 13, 2021

    Strongly agree about the importance of informed decisions.

    > “The corridor branches off in two directions, left or right?”

    That’s not a choice so much as a coin flip, and maybe a joke about the party always picking right.

    “The corridor branches off in two directions. A cool mist blows in from the left path, which echoes with the sound of rushing water. From the right, you hear the sound of music and muffled screams.”

    Now the party can decide if they’d rather risk drowning, or facing the weird harpsicord demon from Insidious. 😀

  5. Pingback: These Adventures Teach Us How to Offer Players Choices | Alphastream

Leave a Reply to Michael Lee Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Information

This entry was posted on August 12, 2021 by and tagged , , .